Wednesday, 13 July 2011

'This Rough Magic' by Mary Stewart - A Book Review

This week has been a long one, full of unexpected happenings and the tiring travails of moving house. Fortunately for me, one of those unexpected happenings was the discovery of a new, brilliant author! Mary Stewart, the author of suspenseful romances, was a gamble when I bought her book, 'This Rough Magic'. How surprised I was when I finally began to read it and was swept away to Greece and the island which might well have been Prospero's in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'.

'This Rough Magic' (in itself a quote from The Tempest) begins with Lucy Waring's arrival in the Greek island of Corfu, a place rich in myth and tradition. Lucy joins her sister, Phyllida Forli at one of the three houses the Forlis own. The other two houses have been tenanted out, one to a photographer named Godfrey Manning, and the other to thespian Julian Gale. Lucy herself is a down and out actress who is in awe of Julian Gale but almost immediately on arrival at Corfu, she locks horns with his brusque son, Max, a musician.

While Lucy and Max's relationship is rocky at best, their interaction provides a stimulating background to the odd happenings at the island, with drownings and dead bodies ultimately leading Lucy to stumble on a conspiracy that might well cast Max as the villain of the piece.

Needless to say, 'This Rough Magic' is a testament to Stewart's mastery at melding together the two genres of suspense and romance. The mystery in the story did not take second place to the wonderfully subtle courtship between hero and heroine - neither did Stewart neglect to paint a remarkably effective portrait of the island with its patron saint, St. Spiridion.

It was all those little touches of the romantic (not romance, but just a subtle appreciation of aesthetics and beauty) - together with a keen appreciation of the cruel, the eccentric, and the sometimes just unexplainable quirks in human personalities - that brought the whole novel together so very well.

As I was reading the book, I couldn't help drawing comparisons between Mary Stewart's work and that of the more well known mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

The exacting, keen sense of deductive reasoning that that wonderful creation of hers, Hercule Poirot, embodied has always been a delightful feast for my mind, albeit more when following the old TV series than reading the books (my sis was more a Poirot reader than me unfortunately). Having just got off a Christie binge of sorts though (purely books this time:)), Poirot's stoic adherence to Reason was becoming a tad monotonous - which might be why I was a grateful recipient of Stewart's rich detail and lush imagery in 'This Rough Magic'.

Stewart definitely emphasises description over dialogue in her writing, quite in contrast to Agatha Christie, but her descriptive tone is often delicate and nuanced and atmospheric, inviting her audience to fully appreciate the surroundings she depicts without resorting to painting the island with an artificially exotic veneer (though there were some elements of this).

A different animal too is Hercule Poirot's genius intelligence when compared to the stumbling amateur efforts of Lucy Waring. Though Poirot's intelligence and skills of observation made him uniquely suited for solving those mysteries which made Christie famous, it was more relatable somehow to think in terms of the amateur Lucy, to have to follow a girl who was neither qualified nor inherently suited for solving mysteries, as she in fact solved the mystery in 'This Rough Magic' and unmasked the villain.

It was the lack of neatness in Lucy's detective work perhaps that was oddly endearing, and which made the story all the more suspenseful.

I followed Lucy's footsteps through the story as she tries to get to the truth of the mysterious and deadly occurences on the beautiful island of Corfu, and couldn't help feeling an enjoyable sense of partaking in the uncertain life of an individual walking strange paths in a foreign country - only to form within a sense of understanding and appreciation of such otherness.

Well, now that I'm done with 'This Rough Magic', all I can think of is the next Mary Stewart, and I have just the one in mind: my recently purchased 'Nine Coaches Waiting' is, er, waiting on my bedside table, ready to lure me into Stewart's imaginative vision and beautiful wordplay. What a gorgeous bedtime read to look forward to!

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